Like his baseball-playing namesake, the trailblazer of the new wave of craft distilling in Japan is affectionately referred to by fans at home and abroad by his first name. Far too humble to agree with this, he is as much of a rock star to the whisky community as the other Ichiro is to (most) baseball aficionados.
Ichiro Akuto is the mastermind behind Chichibu Distillery. He has calibrated every aspect of production at his distillery and oversees the operations with an obsessive attention to detail. In interviews, he’s asked mostly about how things are done at the distillery. The reality, however, is that on an average day he spends more time at his blending lab on the annex site, a five-minute walk from the main distillery site, than in the still house.
‘Every day at the distillery is different,’ he explains, ‘but I have two daily routines. One is to have a meeting in the morning with the members of my team, where we go over the details of the previous day’s production and look at what needs to be done today. The other is to spend time at my blending lab, checking the quality of the whisky maturing in the warehouses. Some days I check 10 cask samples; other days I may check 30, it all depends on how busy I am with other things that need attention, but I constantly check the quality of each cask.’ Routine sampling is done at least once a year for each and every cask and this applies to both whisky distilled at Chichibu and casks holding liquid sourced from elsewhere. However, when he’s focused on a particular project, samples are taken more frequently, six months, three months or at even shorter intervals.
Ichiro keeps a record of his samples in notebooks of the kind used by school children in Japan. ‘I keep my records very simple,’ he points out, ‘just basic information and some pithy comments.’
Ichiro may be famous for his single malts, Chichibu and Hanyu, but good luck finding those in the wild. His company’s bread and butter are blends, i.e. blended whiskies and blended malts and those you can find without too much trouble. His bestseller, by far, is the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain, which herefers to as the White Label. ‘It’s an easy-drinking whisky suitable for amizuwari (i.e. diluted with water), in a highball or on the rocks.’
The other three core products in the Venture Whisky portfolio are the Leaf Label pure malts (which is the term used on the label, not the SWA-stipulated “blended malt”, but Japan is outside the jurisdiction of the SWA, for the nitpickers among us). Two of them are omnipresent – the green one (Double Distilleries) and the gold one (Mizunara Wood Reserve); the red one (Wine Wood Reserve) comes and goes and is a bit harder to find.
It’s clear that Ichiro is having a lot of fun making these blends, but it would be a mistake to assume it’s an easy thing to do for a craft producer in Japan. Whisky producers here don’t swap stock or sell stock to independent brokers. Lacking the economies of scale, the craft producers are forced to look overseas. ‘I have to buy stock abroad to supplement the Chichibu stock and what little Hanyu stock is left, because there is no tradition of swapping in Japan. Also, I don’t make grain whisky, so I have to import grain whisky from abroad. But I see this is as a positive thing.
‘The White Label blend is a “worldwide blend” containing malt and grain from the five main whisky-producing regions. I think it’s great to be able to choose good whisky from those regions and bring them together to create a unique blend that you wouldn’t be able to create in each of those regions on its own.’
For craft distilleries in Japan keen to have affordable entry-level quality blended whiskies on the shelves, the lack of domestic grain whisky is a stubborn problem. A possible solution would be to set up a co-op grain whisky distillery. Ichiro nods, ‘We talk about that sometimes even though there are no concrete plans as of yet.’
One strategy Ichiro uses to maintain consistency in his core-range blends is to use the solera method.
‘We use three big tuns for Malt & Grain, a big mizunara tun for Mizunara Wood Reserve and an egg-shaped wooden vat, the Ovum, for Wine Wood Reserve. When the level is about 1/3 down, we put new components in.’ There’s no blending by numbers at Venture Whisky. The final arbiter is always taste.
The conversation turns to the limited edition Chichibu releases Ichiro creates once or twice a year. Here, it’s all about creating novel taste experiences for the discerning drinker. The Chichibu IPA Cask Finish released at the end of 2017 is a case in point. ‘Chichibu is a new distillery so we don’t really know what sort of casks are suitable for the maturation of our spirit. That’s why we try as many different cask types. I feel there’s a kinship between IPA and malt whisky. Of course, both are made using barley, but there’s a certain fruitiness to good IPAs that you also find in some malt whiskies. So about three years ago, I decided to re-rack some of our whisky in those used IPA casks and leave it to mature. Last year I checked the quality of those ex-IPA casks and it surpassed my expectations. That’s why I felt the time was right to develop a limited-edition product.’
Ichiro tried more than 50 ex-IPA casks in his warehouse and narrowed the selection down to 24 that were vatted and left to marry. Unless it’s a single-cask bottling at cask strength, the next step for Ichiro and his team is to find the perfect ABV for the product. ‘It’s very simple, we make different versions in increments between 45% ABV and vatting strength, and then I find the ABV that best displays the aromas and flavours.’
As said, most of what Ichiro sells now is blended whisky and blended malt. This makes good business sense, of course, as it allows him to keep the company growing without jeopardising the accumulation of mature stock of the single malt made in-house. Whether the bigger picture will be a cross-fade from blends to single malt is something Ichiro doubts. ‘I don’t know what the future holds, but I will probably keep making blended whiskies, because blending whisky from all over the world is very informative. We can learn a lot from blending.’
As we leave the lab, we pick Ichiro’s brain about the dozen or so new distilleries that have popped up all over Japan in the last two or three years. Humble as always, he laughs at the moniker “Ichiro’s Children”, applied by some whisky folks in Japan to these post-Chichibu craft distilleries. Whether the emergence of these new distillers with friendly ties to each other will lead to a change of culture as far as the swapping of stock is concerned remains to be seen, but Ichiro is unequivocally positive. “I think it’s a good thing for Chichibu and for the Japanese whisky scene in general. In the past, reading publications like Whisky Magazine, it was always Suntory, Nikka, Suntory, Nikka. But now, these new distillers are stimulating people’s interest in the category of Japanese whisky, so people will want to try more whisky.”
The two types of tuns used for the core range
Lab samples from casks